Weight Loss with Mental Health Struggles – A Holistic Approach

After two episodes of schizoaffective disorder, I was fairly depressed and exhausted. I was taking psychiatric medications which sapped my energy and I also had some trauma from having nearly starved to death. At age 22 during my first hospitalization, I weighed 125 lbs and during my second episode at age 24 I weighed 145 lbs. I’m five foot nine with a stocky frame and when I’m healthy I’m around 200 lbs.  I will preface this article by saying the methods used to lose weight in this article worked for me but it’s probably best to check with your doctor to see what might work for you.

After my episodes, eating was one of my immediate coping skills for negative emotions. I would eat exorbitantly and wasn’t certain why. For years my weight waxed and waned and at age 32 I  had weighed 236 lbs for four years which was well overweight. I decided I needed to do something to become healthier.

At first, there were many psychological barriers. During my episodes, I had a delusion that I had to eat less so that everyone could have more food which in turn would prevent world famine. I thought I was a messiah and my thoughts were being broadcasted so if I did this everyone else in the world would too.

I had to refute this thought, even though in the present day I was cognizant enough to see that it wasn’t true or rational, and address my fear of losing weight. Having lost a ton of weight in the past made it scary to even think about it. I told myself I could lose ten pounds at a time and then level out and keep repeating this process. This provided some alleviation but it was still scary to think about losing more weight. I still worried I would get into bad habits of losing too much weight and I wouldn’t be able to stop it, as had happened in the past.

I addressed this fear to some extent and partially refuted it which was helpful. I figured I should be able to lose weight without losing too much weight but the prospect was still scary. It took a leap of faith to transcend this fear and there was no particular time where I felt one hundred percent ready. I decided it’s now or never and I’m going for it.

The first step I took was eating healthier. I tried several small adjustments in my diet which had small effects but my weight remained the same. After listening to a research presentation by Professor Dost Ongur of Harvard Medical School I decided I needed to substantially reduce the number of starches, carbohydrates, and sugars in my diet but not entirely eliminate them. In his presentation, he sited there is evidence for a significant population of people with psychosis that breaking down carbohydrates and sugars in the brain can be more difficult for you and this slows down cognition. Therefore not putting simple carbs and sugars into your body has proven effects of improving cognition for a significant amount of the population of people who have experiences with psychosis.

I started doing an abbreviated version of the Keto diet where I would have some bread and sugar but not much. At first, I felt cravings for the carbs and sugars which was difficult emotionally and mentally. My brain was strained at first and I felt depressed and stressed. Once my body adjusted I noticed I felt better emotionally, I had more energy, and I did notice some improvements in my clarity of thought. Seeing these results in my mental and emotional health motivated me to keep doing this diet. Along with this, I lost 16 pounds which was a substantial amount of weight.

Another part of losing the weight was not eating as much in the morning. The struggle I had was that in my episodes one of the driving factors for mania was starvation. I would be starving at night and wouldn’t be able to sleep because of it. Flight or fight instincts would kick in giving me an enormous amount of adrenaline at night as my body was desiring food thus keeping me awake. This experience has caused me to be more of a night time-eater.

It’s been a habit I’ve become better with but I decided not to fight it immediately. There’s research stating from primal times the human body is accustomed to going one to two days without food. Having heard this I decided I would not eat until lunchtime every day. I couldn’t prevent myself from eating at night but I didn’t feel hunger in the morning therefore that was the time I picked to fast. Fasting in the mornings has also helped me to maintain my weight.

I started trying to exercise more but I didn’t have the motivation. For years I had blamed the medication for not having the motivation to exercise. In recent years as I’ve alleviated most of the experiential burdens of the trauma of schizoaffective disorder, I learned that most of that exhaustion is not from the medication. Most of the exhaustion came from maladaptive thoughts and behaviors I had adopted to cope with the enormous amount of stress I was carrying with me through every day.

This can be different from person to person but for myself, I have taken the same low dose of medication I’ve been on for eight years. As I have gained increasingly more alleviation from stress, I’ve had more energy to exercise and my cognition has also improved. Having more energy was helpful but there was more that needed to be done.

After improving my health enough mentally and emotionally I still struggled with exercise. I had a gym membership and lived five minutes away but I wasn’t going. I decided I needed to make exercise more fun and I started golfing more. I was playing indoor golf twice a week and once the weather improved I played more outdoor golf. Eventually realizing I wasn’t going to the gym I canceled the membership and put the money from the monthly membership towards golf.

At first, I struggled with financing golf and it was incredibly frustrating. However, I had a stroke of luck and walked nine holes at six am one morning. They only charged fifteen dollars for the early bird special and I live in the Greater Boston area. This was a gift, as golf was now affordable for me. Most clubs have an early bird special if you’re willing to wake up early enough. I also started doing two dumbbell exercises per day at home and sticking to this routine. I thought two exercises was doable time-wise and also very accessible as the dumbbells were in my bedroom. This helped but another thing I also started doing was building more walking into my day. I would take the stairs at work which helped and on my lunch break I intentionally took longer walks to the cafeteria.

With a combination of all these things, I lost about five more pounds. This is currently my process and I feel a lot healthier at this point. Ayurvedic practice is rooted in utilizing an innumerable amount of spices to provide nourishment and nutrition and to heal the mind and body. I originally thought just changing one or two things was all I needed to do lose weight. After making a number of changes I’ve lost 21 lbs in five months, I feel much healthier and I have more muscle too.

I’m going to continue to work on more ways to incorporate healthy living into my life as the benefits have been very noticeable mentally, emotionally, and physically.